The Origins Of Alcoholic Distillation In The West: The Medical School Of Salerno

In the South of Italy, on the Tyrrenian sea, lay the ancient city of Salerno. In the Early Middle Ages, the city was an important political and commercial center and a crossroads of influences  between all Europe and the Mediterranean Sea.

According to a legend, a Greek pilgrim named Pontus had stopped in the city of Salerno and found shelter for the night under the arches of the ancient aqueduct. There was a thunderstorm and another Italian wanderer, named Salernus, happened in the same place. He was hurt and the Greek, at first suspicious, approached to look closely at the dressings that the Italian applied to his wound. Meanwhile, two other travelers, the Jew Helinus and the Arab Abdela, had come. They also showed interest in the wound and at the end they discovered that all four were doctors. Together they founded the Schola Medica Salernitana, Medical School of Salerno, the oldest medical school in the West where their knowledge could be collected and disseminated.

We do not have reliableinformation about the beginnings of the School. The nearby great Benedictine Abbey of Montecassino must have given its contribution: Arabic medical treatises, both those that were translations of Greek texts and those that were originally written in Arabic, had accumulated in its library, where they were translated into Latin. This book knowledge was supplemented and enriched by Jewish and Arabic medical practice, known from contacts with nearby Arab Sicily and North Africa. As a result, the medical practitioners of Salerno were unrivalled in the medieval Western Mediterranean for medical treatments. What we know for sure is that in the X century the School was already famous and from all parts of Europe sick people flocked to Salerno to be cured, and doctors to learn.

The “School” was based on a synthesis of  Greek, Latin, Arab and Jewish culture and medical tradition. The approach was based on the practice and culture of prevention rather than cure, thus opening the way for the empirical method in medicine. Moreover, an important contribution to the School of Salerno was made by women as female practitioners, and among them, Trotula de Ruggiero was the most renowned. For the first time a woman  ascends to the honors of the chair, and gives instructions to women in labor. She is credited with having written several books on gynaecology and cosmetics.

In the middle of XII century, the School was at its apogee and provided a notable contribution to the formulation of a medical curriculum for medieval universities all over Europe. In Salerno there appeared also the new art of surgery which was elevated to the dignity of a true science by Ruggiero di Fugaldo. He wrote the first treatise on rational surgery that spread throughout Europe.

In 1231, the authority of the School was sanctioned by Emperor Federico II who established that the activity of a doctor could only be carried out by doctors holding a diploma issued by the Medical School of Salerno.

The most famous work of the School was the Regimen Sanitatis a Latin poem of rational, dietetic, and hygienic precepts, many of them still valid today. For instance: “Si tibi deficiant medici, medici tibi fiant haec tria: mens laeta, requies, moderata diaeta”, which means “If you lack doctors, let these three things be your doctors: a cheerful disposition, quiet, a frugal diet.”

And in Salerno in the XII century perhaps starts the journey of alcohol in the West, that journey which goes all the way to the present and to us. In fact,  as far as we know, the earliest instructions for the distilling of alcohol from wine appear in a short introduction to the study of medicine written around 1150 by a not well-known “Master of Salerno” or maybe a “Salernus” in a manuscript of the  so-called “Mappae Clavicula”.  The Mappae Clavicula (more or less “The Little Key of the Map”, but the title and its meaning are uncertain) is a medieval Latin text which contains recipes describing crafts techniques about metals, glass, mosaics, and dyes and tints for materials. The core was probably originally compiled around AD 600, perhaps in Alexandria in Egypt. The number of recipes was expanded over the course of the centuries, and some medieval copies have deletions as well as additions, so it is better thought of as a family of texts with a largely common core, not a single text. It was one of the few scientific treatises available in the Early Middle Ages in Latin Europe. Only the twelfth century and later versions contain the recipe for the preparation of alcohol in the form of a cryptogram. There exist slightly different versions of the cryptogram in different manuscripts, here is one of them:

De commistione puri et fortissimi XKNK cum III  QBSUF  TBMKT cocta in ejus necocii vasis fit aqua, quae accensam flammam incombustam servat”

That, more or less, means:

“A mixture of pure and very strong XKNK with III QBSUF  TBMKT cooked in the usual vessel make a water, which will flame up when set on fire but leave the material unburnt”

The three nonsense words are simple word puzzles with a mistake. They are formed by substituting for the proper letter – in Latin – the one which follows it in the alphabet:  XKNK = VINI (wines); QBSUF = PARTE (part); and TBMKT = SALIS (salt). The ‘n’ in the word  XKNK is probably a mistake of the amanuenses, it should have been an ‘o’.

It is interesting to notice how, in this first description of wine distillation, the name given to the new substance thus produced, which we call alcohol, is aqua, that is, water. We’ll get back to this.

Therefore, we can subscribe to the statements of our Forbes  “ … alcohol was discovered about 1100 and the evidence points to Italy, where the school of Salerno was then the most important chemical center. The reason of the late discovery of alcohol was of course partly due to inefficient cooling and the unnecessary long pre-heating period but certainly also to the fact that even the strongest distillate which the early stills could separate in one distillation still contained so much water that it would not burn. The secret of the success after 1100 was not only the rectification of the distillate or the recovery of this distillate in several fractions, but mainly the addition of such substances as salt, tartar (potassium carbonate), etc. which absorbed part of the water and made the rest ready to distill. Now this enabled them to make alcoholic distillates which burn quite readily because they contain less than 35% of water, and to obtain even absolute alcohol after several rectifications.”

As we have seen in the previous articles, alcohol might already have been discovered, by distilling wine, by Arabic and Alexandrine alchemists, but they had been isolated experiences, confined to the alchemists’ laboratories, often kept secret. In Salerno, on the other hand, the new substance was used in medicine and, although slowly and in narrow circles, it started to be known and used increasingly often. Later on, in the course of the XIII century, with the general booming of economy and culture, the Arabic books becoming more common, and with deep changes in the political situation of Southern Italy, the scientific influence of the Medical School of Salerno decreased. The cultural leadership of Latin Europe passed to the new Universities, among them those of the rich, thriving cities of Northern Italy, the “Comuni”. And there, first of all in Bologna, alcohol, would make the leap towards fame and success.

As we’ll endeavor to tell you in the next articles.

Marco Pierini

PS: I published this article a few months ago on the “Got Rum?” magazine. If you want to read my articles and to be constantly updated about the rum world, visit

The Origins Of Alcoholic Distillation In The West: The Arabs

The very word alcohol derives from the Arabic alkoél (where al– is the article), but it had a different meaning. In Arabic it indicated the extremely fine, impalpable powder of antimony sulphide or even of galena (lead sulphide) that, mixed with water, had been used since ancient times in the Orient, especially by women, to paint their eyebrows, eyelashes and the edge of the eyelids black. The name and the thing itself entered the West thanks to the translation into Latin of Arabic books; in Spain both were commonly used until the XVI century, and even now the Spanish language has the verb alcoholar which basically means “to color one’s eyes black”.

“Alcohol was called by Arabic chemists such as Ibn Badis (11th century) خمر     مصعّد (distilled wine).  The current word for distilled wine in Arab Lands is `araq عرق which means sweat. The droplets of ascending wine vapours that condense on the sides of the cucurbit are similar to the drops of sweat.” (Ahmad Y. al-Hassan)

So, where does our use of the word alcohol come from? It comes from the famous physician, alchemist and astrologer Teophrastus Paracelsus (1493-1541). Paracelsus used this word to indicate the spirit of wine, which he called alcohol vini, wine alcohol, since it was the quintessence, the noblest and most essential part of wine. This new name gradually passed on to chemists and physicians, who ended up omitting vini and thus the word alcohol remained.

But what exactly was the role of the Arabs in the origins of  alcoholic distillation? Let’s see.

First of all, “If we speak of Arabs in this chapter we include all those that belong to the civilization of Islam, which means Syrians, Persians, Copts, Berbers and others too. As early as one century after the death of Muhammed (632 A.D.) a large world empire has arisen from a local Arabian movement, and its center is transferred to Syria, and later Mesopotamia. The Islam knocks at the doors of Byzantium and menaces Italy and France.”(Forbes)

The Arabs read and translated the works of the Greek and Hellenistic culture, annotated them and preserved them, kept them alive within their  culture. Those first centuries are the Golden Age of Arab civilization. From Spain to Central Asia peoples and states shared the same (high) culture, with many thriving academies and centers of studies supported by enlightened monarchs. One of the reasons of this success was the Arabs’ religious tolerance. Even before the arrival of the Arabs the old Academy of Athens founded by Plato had been closed (529 A.D.) and many Greek heathens had moved to the hospitable cities of Iran. Later the Byzantine Empire was deeply divided by theological disputes  and many suffered bloody persecutions, so many a group of “heretics” settled in the Arabian Empire. For instance, the Nestorians settled mostly in Persia, now Iran, and in present-day Iraq.  Many Jewish scientific centers were situated in the Arabian Empire too.

In chemical technology too we owe muchto the Arabs.  For instance glass and pottery industries made it possible to make better vessels and containers for distillation technique and thus also made new experiments possible to chemists. Pharmacy and other branches of medicine could flourish. Often the Arabian chemists were inclined to consider distillation an important process for agricultural industry. In their hands the distillation of rose-water, vinegar, rose-oil and other perfumes and essential oils grew to become a true industry  and rose-water was sent all over the world. Clearly, the perfume and cosmetics industry was a flourishing one, reflecting a better quality of life. It is important to remember that the cultural renaissance of the West in the early centuries after the year one thousand AD owes much to the Latin translation of Arabic texts and of Greek texts previously translated into Arabic.

But let’s get to alcoholic distillation. Forbes is clear: “It will facilitate our discussion of these works if we state beforehand that no proof was ever found that the Arabs knew alcohol or any mineral acid in the period before they were discovered in Italy …” Later, writing about the great Arab alchemists till  1200, he states  “All these authors describe the same apparatus, which was incapable of distilling low-boiling substances. As none of them ever mentions alcohol it is practically certain that this substance was unknown to the Arab world” till the XIV century when the introduction of the new Western type of distilling apparatus  enabled chemists to recover low boiling distillates.

Contemporary Arab authors claim the opposite, though.

According to Ahmad Y. al-Hassan  in his online article Alcohol and the Distillation of Wine in Arabic Sources From the Eighth Century Onwards  “The distillation of wine and the properties of alcohol were known to Islamic chemists from the eighth century. The prohibition of wine in Islam did not mean that wine was not produced or consumed or that Arab alchemists did not subject it to their distillation processes. Jabir ibn Hayyan described a cooling technique which can be applied to the distillation of alcohol. Some historians of chemistry and technology assumed that Arab chemists did not know the distillation of wine because these historians were not aware of the existence of Arabic texts to this effect. …   the art of distillation of spirits is credited to the Arabs especially the Arabs of al-Andalus.”

Ahmad Y. al-Hassan and Donald R. Hill in “ISLAMIC TECHNOLOGY An illustrated history” quote directly a passage by Al-Jabir [known in Latin Europe as Geber] “And fire burns on the mouth of the bottles  [due to] … boiled wine and salt, and similar things with nice characteristics which are thought to be of little use, these are of great significance in these sciences “

And later in their book, they write “ The Muslims are credited with the development of the distillation apparatus classically known in chemistry as the retort, but also called the ‘pelican’ or ‘cucurbit’ because of its bird-like or gourd-like shape. In this case the still-head ceased to be a separate entity and better cooling resulting in the collection of an increased amount of distillate came about of itself if the side-tube were made long enough.”

About cooling, the authors admit that early “Arabic manuscripts do not show any water-cooling sleeve round the side-tube. Nevertheless it seems to have been appreciated that cooling the tube would improve condensation of the vapors, and sponges, cloth or rags periodically moistened with cold water were placed round the top of the still. On present evidence it is usually suggested that the use of cooling water was a later development that occurred in the West. At the same time, a word of caution is needed because though the distillation of alcohol requires external cooling of the retort or of the side-tube, our present knowledge of Arabic technical and chemical manuscripts is still in its preliminary stages, and it is too early to come to definite conclusions about water-cooling in Muslim alchemy”

Let us think carefully about this. First of all, we must never forget how difficult and laborious it was in the past to solve technical and scientific problems that appear quite straightforward to us, like the cooling of the still with water. Arabic chemistry and alchemy developed greatly over the centuries, while Western Europe was shrouded in its dark centuries. It is therefore reasonable to think that some Arab scientists  managed to overcome the technical problems of the cooling process and to produce alcohol before it made its appearance in the West. But there is no evidencethat it ever became a common technique, let alone a commercial production on a large scale.

The relation of Islam with alcohol has always been difficult. We know that the Quranic  prohibition of consuming alcoholic beverages  did not prevent many a group among the male elites of the Golden Age of Arab civilization from drinking wine.  But surely this prohibition  did not promote the creation of a social environmentsuited to the passage of  alcohol from a scientist’s laboratory to a commercial distillery and then to the tables of a tavern. The very fact that today researchers have to look for evidence and corroborationof Arab alcoholic distillation in ancient, cryptic manuscripts half-forgotten in some ancient library, suggests that commercial production never developed. Otherwise, why didn’t it continue until today and even the memory has been lost?

To sum up, further studiesmay bring changes, but for now I feel I can safely say that the Arabs developedalchemy, chemistry and distillation and probably distilled alcohol too. But theproduction of alcohol, if even achieved, remained a limited experience, whichnever became large scale commercial production.

Marco Pierini

PS: I published this article a few months ago on the “Got Rum?” magazine. If you want to read my articles and to be constantly updated about the rum world, visit

The Origins Of Alcoholic Distillation In The West: Alexandria

Some authors maintain that the ancient Egyptians already distilled alcohol, others credit the Sumerians with being the first, others still the Celts; there are even those who attribute the invention of alcoholic distillation to this or that barbarian population of the steppes. Recent archaeological excavations in Cyprus would seem to prove the use of distillation, probably to make perfumes, around 2000 BC. The number of contrasting theories itself makes such an early date doubtful; what’s more, no one is able to produce reliable evidence, and, regrettably, it has to be said that some historians still mix up fermented beverages and distilled beverages.

It is important to remember that distilling alcohol is difficult, it requires firstly a complex mental process and then a suitable technology. Or, in the words of Forbes, “One forgets too often that at the back of a simple distilling apparatus there are a mass of experiences and experiments and that it represents the combination of several principles of natural science with the ability to make the proper apparatus to execute the operation”.

There is yet another consideration. If, in the long, ancient history of the Mediterranean, before the Classic Age, someone succeeded in distilling alcohol on a regular basis and in drinking it as a beverage, how come that this precious knowledge got lost?

Because one thing is certain, the Greeks and the Romans of the Classic Age did not drink Spirits.

They drank wine, a lot of it, and sometimes they drank beer too. They knew and used, both as a beverage and  as medicine, many other fermented beverages made from palm trees, fruit, honey etc. but not strong, distilled spirit drinks. In the famous Symposia of Classic Greece, they drank wine, usually diluted with water in wonderful Attic kraters to diminish its strength. The Romans drank even undiluted wine, they knew several types and were able to distinguish between strong and less strong wines. We also know that they warmed the wine to make it thicker, and that some wines were treated in various ways so as to use them as a medicinal drug; but alcoholic distillation through evaporation and subsequent cooling of the vapors is never mentioned anywhere.

Distillation as such, though, was not unknown.

Aristotle and others wrote reflections on the evaporation and subsequent condensation of water. It was also known that the salt water of the sea changed into the freshwater of  rain and  rivers; the fact that evaporation by the heat of the sun drives the water cycle, and that the water which evaporates falls back as precipitation was also known. To the great Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist Pedanius Dioscorides, who lived around 70 AD, is attributed the famous sentence “Distillation is like imitating the sun that vaporizes the water and returns it as rain.”

Moreover, craftsmen probably used crude forms of distillation to make perfumes, dyes and in metal work, while sublimation was used for the manufacture of mercury. But, it would seem, nothing more. And most importantly, I’ll say it again, Spirit Drinks did not exist.

Modern archeology was born some centuries ago digging Greek and Roman sites. Well, in the great mass of archeological finds nothing has ever been found, as far as I know, which proves the existence of distilling apparatus to manufacture the alcohol to produce spirit drinks.  Moreover, the written sources of the time which have come down to us, including treatises on agriculture,  never speak about strong, distilled, spirit drinks. Obviously, I haven’t been able to verify all the sources, a job that goes beyond my capabilities, but in all the secondary literature I have had the opportunity to read not once are Spirits mentioned.

With only one exception, perhaps. The great Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, who died in the famous eruption of the Vesuvius of 79 AD (the very eruption that destroyed Pompeii) describes a strange “coelesti aqua” that is, more or less, “heavenly water”. According to him, it was used for preserving grapes and it warmed the stomach pleasantly. It might have been alcohol, but we cannot be sure.

Things began to change  later. According to Forbes “We must adopt the general opinion that distillation was first discovered by the Alexandrian Chemists in the first century A.D. until we have further proof.” Alexandria of Egypt had been for centuries the cultural center of the Hellenistic World and around its famous Library philosophers and scientists from all countries studied and experimented in all fields of learning. And, among other things,  they invented chemistry. “The Hellenistic era was one of those lucky periods in which craftsmanship and science met and stimulated each other. The young chemistry had the typical rationalistic traits of the older Greek science.”(Forbes) Zosimos, Maria the Jewess, Hipatia, Synesios are only some of the protagonists of a fascinating adventure of human intelligence.

In the texts which have come down to us we find, for the first time, the drawing of a real distilling apparatus: “This is already far advanced in the writings of Maria the Jewess who is generally considered to have invented it. It already consists of the three necessary elements, the cucurbit and alembic, a tube for transporting the distillate and vapours and the receiving flask” (Forbes)

Actually, the traditional name for Pot Still, Alembic, came from the Greek word ἄμβιξ, that is ambix, meaning “cup”. Only much later did the Arabs appropriate the word, to which they added the definite article in the Arabic language “al”, that is, “the”. And through the Arabs the word entered the languages of Latin Western Europe.

Back to Alexandria, a source of 200 BC says that “sailors at sea boil sea water and suspend large sponges from the mouth of a bronze vessel to imbibe what is evaporated. In drawing this off the sponges, they find it to be sweet water”(Forbes); this might be the description of how they distilled sea water.

But did they actually manufacture alcohol? Forbes maintains they did not. According to him, the problem was cooling: “The use of distillation apparatus with very insufficient cooling, so that only liquids with boiling points higher than that of water could be recovered somewhat efficiently.” Other authors claim the opposite. I am not in a position to express an informed opinion.  Off the top of my head, it seems strange to me that centuries of studies and experimentation did not succeed in distilling alcohol. But the lack of conclusive evidence and of a successive development makes me think that, even if some single experiences did take place, they remained isolated and alcohol remained at best a strange and rare liquid, used only for scientific and alchemic purposes.

To conclude, there is no doubt that the foundations of the history of alcoholic distillation in the West were laid in Alexandria, but it is not from there that the path towards  commercial production of alcohol on a large scale started.

In 639 the Arabs invaded Egypt. With astonishing speed, the Byzantine forces were routed and had withdrawn from Egypt by 642. In 645 an attempt by a Byzantine fleet and army to reconquer Alexandria was quickly defeated. Since then, Alexandria has remained unshakably in their hands and Egypt became one of the centers of Arabic and Islamic culture, up to the present.

Arabic and Islamic culture soon deeply absorbed Alexandrine and  Greek learning, which at the time had almost completely disappeared in  Latin Western Europe, plunged into the dark centuries. Among the legacy of the Alexandrines, the Arab scientists and alchemists learned also distillation techniques, they improved them and made large use of them.

But we will deal with  this subject in the next article.

PS: I published this article a few months ago on the “Got Rum?” magazine. If you want to read my articles and to be constantly updated about the rum world, visit

PPS: I published the first article about my quest on the origin of alcoholic distillation here

The Origins Of Alcoholic Distillation In The West: A New Quest

The readers of GOT RUM may remember that in the past I published a series of articles titled “The Origins of Rum: A Quest” At the end of my research I reached the conclusion that, as far as I knew, the Origins of Rum in the West were to be found in Brazil in the first half of the XVII century. (See the last article of that series  in GOT RUM?  August 2015)

When studying the origins of rum, I had to deal with the origin of alcoholic distillation in general and this issue fascinated me. So, after concluding my research on American Rum, I decided to take up a new Quest, this time about the Origins of Alcoholic Distillation in the West.

“Distillation is an art and even an ancient one. It is strange to find that the history of this oldest and still most important method of producing chemically pure substances has never been written. … a proper history of the art from its origin up to the present time was lacking.”

With these words R. J. Forbes  begins his Short History of the Art of Distillation”, written in Amsterdam in 1944 and published in 1948. A valuable book, available today only thanks to the American Distilling Institute that has republished it.  The subject of Forbes’ book is distillation in general (perfumes, metals, dyes etc), not only alcoholic distillation, which is what interests us. In any case, Forbes is necessarily our starting point. It is an interesting, learned book, brimming with information, but not easy to read. Besides, it is inevitably dated, since the sources available at the time were scanty. In particular, hardly any of the many Arabic works on the subject were accessible. Yet, this is the only organic text on the history of distillation the general public has at their disposal, which means that if you visit and digit “history of distillation”, only this title will come up.

This does not mean that no new texts have been written on the subject since 1944. The world is full of Universities and research bodies and undoubtedly there are many other studies and academic papers  on alcoholic distillation. But they have remained largely confined to comparatively limited circles (scientific journals, academic conferences and such like) without reaching the large public of aficionados. Then, naturally, there are plenty of texts written to enhance the marketing of this or that company, this or that product. They are easy to find, but usually rough-and-ready and unreliable. Anyway, as far as I know, no one else, after Forbes, has published an organic history of alcoholic distillation.

Well, so this is our starting point, the awareness that about this theme – the Origins of Alcoholic Distillation in the West – very little is known and we are, so to speak, sailing in the open sea. We have to search ourselves for little-known sources and documents and reflect on the historical context, in the hope of reaching valuable conclusions. With little help from secondary literature. It was the same with the Quest into the Origins of Rum. It is laborious and errors cannot be ruled out, but it is also thrilling, true historical research.

But before continuing, it is a good idea to clarify the purpose and the scope of this New Quest.

Since I began my studies into the origins of rum,  I have learned that at the beginning, maybe in the XI century, alcohol was produced by distilling wine, which makes sense, as wine was by far the most popular alcoholic drink. Distillation was a complex procedure, difficult and costly, done by pharmacists and alchemists. After great effort, toil and expenditure, they managed to obtain small quantities of a strange, colorless, burning liquid that today we call alcohol, but to which they gave the Medieval Latin name “Aqua”, that is “water”. Later, fascinated by  this prodigious liquid, someone called it “Aqua Vitae”, “Water of life”, and the name stuck.

For a long time alcohol was used only as a medicinal drug, or in scientific and alchemic experiments. According to some scholars the shift of alcohol from a drug to a common beverage for pleasure consumption occurred only in the first half of the XVII century. When, two years ago, I wrote my book “American Rum” I put the date backward to XVI century Holland.

But historic research is a work in progress and now I think that in the West, commercial production of alcohol on a large scale was, almost certainly, an Italian invention and  it happened as early as the XIV century. I hope I will be able to explain and support this conclusion in the next articles.

For the sake of clarity I will repeat it: commercial production of alcohol on a large scale in the West. Yet again, as was the case with rum, we are not looking for attempts which were not followed through, or experiments, even intriguing ones, which remained isolated. We are not interested here in the discoveries of some individual apothecary, doctor, alchemist, monk, craftsman etc. which died with them or with their close disciples, without yielding long-lasting fruit. We want to find out when, where and how selling and consuming Spirit Drinks became an ordinary thing.

We want to discover the moment, the place and perhaps even the people that gifted to us the decisive passage of alcohol from an apothecary’s laboratory to the tables of a tavern, paving the way which leads to us.

This is all for now, see you again in the next article.

Marco Pierini

PS: I wrote “almost certainly” for a reason. We shall return to it at the end.

PPS: i published this article a few months ago on the “Got Rum?” magazine. If you want to read my articles and to be constantly updated about the rum world, visit